-- Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, who is considering a run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, made his first political visit to the home of the nation's first primary Friday, attending a roundtable discussion on high school dropout prevention in Nashua and speaking to a gathering of Democratic activists in Manchester.
Warner, prohibited by Virginia law from seeking a second term, will leave office in two months amid considerable speculation about his plans. Those plans were at the forefront of the discussion Friday as Warner parried questions from activists, local elected officials and reporters about whether he'll seek the presidency.
"I'm not making any decisions about anything yet," was his standard response, although it was lost on no one that Warner chose New Hampshire as the venue to discuss high school dropout prevention, a pet issue of his.
Warner boosters say he has proved he can get elected and govern in a conservative Southern state. That message, they argue, is what the Democratic Party needs to be able to take back the White House.
His detractors dismiss such talk, saying his only claim to fame is having persuaded a Republican legislature to approve a tax increase in 2004 after promising not to raise taxes during his 2001 campaign.
But the success of his protege, Timothy M. Kaine, in last week's election for governor has raised Warner's profile nationally. "It's been a wild 10 days," the outgoing governor said in response to a reporter's question about the flurry of interest since Kaine's victory on Nov. 8.
This week, he quietly unveiled a Web site for his national political action committee, Forward Together.
On the main page of the site, www.forwardtogetherpac.com, Warner says: "The real issues we face are no longer right vs. left or conservative vs. liberal. They're about past vs. future. Our challenge, as Democrats, is to reclaim our role as the party of the future."
Warner is not the only Virginian who has trekked to New Hampshire recently. U.S. Sen. George Allen (R), who is also said to have presidential ambitions, has visited the state several times in the past year.
Friday's roundtable was hosted by Gov. John Lynch (D) and attended by about 50 invited educators and elected officials, as well as 10 reporters and photographers.
Warner was accompanied by a Virginia state trooper and five staffers from the governor's office and his two political committees. The trip's expenses were paid for by the committees, said Ellen Qualls, the governor's spokeswoman.
Warner made no mention of his presidential notions during the 60-minute roundtable, although he closed his remarks by calling the event "a wonderful beginning to open up the conversation."
"I'm impressed that he came up here and talked about substance," state Rep. Jane Clemons (D-Nashua) said after Warner's appearance at Nashua High School South.
"I like that he didn't do the fundraising or chicken dinner thing."
Warner would get his chicken shortly, or at least highlight a luncheon in which many people were eating chicken, at the Puritan restaurant in Manchester. He was greeted by a standing ovation from an overflow crowd of 200 Democratic activists.
Warner spoke for about 20 minutes, laying out a quick version of his biography -- from his days as a failed entrepreneur to his eventual successes in business and as governor. He touted Virginia's designation as the country's best-managed state by Governing magazine and spoke of how the Democratic Party needs to return to the "sensible center."
"We need to shift the debate from liberal versus conservative to the future versus the past," Warner said. "The Democratic Party has always been at its best when it's seen as being the party of the future."
After the event, before heading to Boston's Logan International Airport for his flight home, Warner shook a few last activist hands and promised to keep in touch.
"A good day," he declared. "Good start."
Shear reported from Richmond.